How Dr Mutono Nyamai is reshaping the future of public health using data

Dr Mutono Nyamai

Dr Mutono Nyamai, 32, data scientist at the Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis, University of Nairobi.

Photo credit: Pool I Nation Media Group

Dr Mutono Nyamai, 32, data scientist at the Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis, University of Nairobi

Tell us about your background and how you became interested in neglected tropical diseases (NTDS)

I am a data scientist who uses data analytics and mathematical modelling to understand the transmission of infectious diseases in a population and simulate the intervention strategies that can help control and eliminate the diseases. I have a masters in Environment Governance from University of Nairobi, a masters in Data Analytics from University of Glasgow and a PhD in Environment Governance and Management from University of Nairobi.

I became interested in NTDs because the biggest burden is right here on the African continent.

What has the journey been like for you to get where you are today?

When I completed my KCSE at Moi Girls’ School Nairobi in 2008, I had no idea what to do next. Being the youngest of four siblings, my parents wanted to keep me close. My father nudged me toward Information Technology and I decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business, IT and Database Administration at Strathmore University. Later, I received the complete works of environmentalist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai and my entire career trajectory was altered. I was inspired to do something that improved people’s lives. I enrolled at the Wangari Maathai Institute for my masters and later a PhD in environment governance and management.

Mentorship has played a great role in shaping me into the person I am. I have been mentored by great individuals like ProfStephen Kiama, who was then the director of the Wangari Maathai Institute and currently the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Prof Thumbi Mwangi, who is the co-director of the Centre for Epidemiological Modelling and women scientists such as Prof Maria-Gloria Basanez of Imperial College London, and Prof Caroline Trotter of University of Cambridge.

What are some of the specific neglected tropical diseases that you are focusing on in your research and how are you using data analytics and mathematical modelling to combat them?

There are 20 neglected tropical diseases that are targeted for control and elimination by 2030. Out of these, there are some that are controlled through the intervention of preventive chemotheraphy where oral medication is given to populations residing in endemic areas. These include bilharzia, trachoma, river blindness, and elephantiasis among others. I am currently using data analytics and mathematical modelling to simulate what ideal treatment strategies would achieve elimination by 2030 in areas endemic to river blindness and bilharzia. I also have a keen interest in other neglected diseases that do not use mass drug administration interventions such as rabies.

How do you see technology playing a role in the fight against NTDs and what are some of the most promising advances in this area?

The use of available data and combining it with technology is an example of promising advances in this area. Specifically, satellite imagery has been used in disease control by determining areas suitable for the breeding of these disease-causing agents.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your research and how do you overcome them?

Inadequate access to quality data. However, this is slowly changing as the custodians of health data, which is mainly the Ministry of Health, are appreciating the importance of data analytics and mathematical modelling. In turn, they are providing access to de-identified data. However, this is an area that can greatly improve.

During a past Forbes Women’s Summit, Author Ina Garten spoke about the lessons she learned about the power of saying no and setting boundaries. Does this sound relatable to you? If yes, in what ways?

I have started practising this by choosing opportunities that are pro-Africa, particularly around building capacity in our continent. This is something that is close to my heart, in ensuring we have a bigger pool of qualified data scientists who can improve the quality of life in our continent. I have learned to say no to opportunities that push me away from this goal.

Can you share a specific example of how your gender has influenced your research, either positively or negatively?

I was part of the Mawazo Institute fellowship programme that targets early-career women researchers in the African continent. This platform gave me the opportunity of networking with other women researchers and instilled the importance of ensuring the voices of women are heard in the field of research. Also, conducting research that places gender in mind. This has helped me to factor in the roles of both genders in eliminating NTDs. Also, I am glad to work in a research group that has a big proportion of women who support and steer each other towards success.

Can you tell us about a particularly rewarding moment or accomplishment in your career so far?

One particularly rewarding moment in my career was presenting part of my work to the river blindness technical advisory sub-group of the World Health Organization (WHO) and seeing the recommendations captured as part of the proposed plans for the control of this disease. Also, presenting my work to Bill Gates and piquing his interest was also very rewarding.

How do you think society's perceptions of women in science and technology are changing and what do you think still needs to be done to achieve true gender equality in these fields?

Women only make up a third of the world’s researchers. However, I am glad that this is changing though a lot of awareness needs to be done to encourage women to pursue this field. In addition, research is also being conducted with gender lens and this has the potential of increasing the proportion of women in this field and achieving gender equity.

How do you stay up to date with the latest developments in your field and what resources do you rely on for continuing education?

 I read scientific papers, articles in the Conversation Africa and attend webinars.